Violence and the youth: A destructive coping strategy

In schools people will fight because of the mistreatment of one race by another but will have nothing that relates to the poor story of the townships, says the writer.

In schools people will fight because of the mistreatment of one race by another but will have nothing that relates to the poor story of the townships, says the writer.

Published Jun 19, 2024


Mzwandile Plaatjie

What happening, what is wrong with our communities? Most of us are confronted with this question as we go around meeting our compeers.

We are thrown with this pervasive penetrating question that provokes our thinking while equally challenging us to evaluate our stance on issues affecting the life and development of our communities.

It is a daunting question that raises more questions than answers – a discourse that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the beholder.

To ease this uncomfortable state, let me bring afore my little understanding of how we have landed where we are today, and how we have allowed this “little giant” roaming our streets to manifest itself to a level where it shocks us today.

Life is guided by the experiences we live. Human behaviour is in most instances described and understood in relation to the environment in which the human species found themselves, and our conduct is derived from the very same context our action seeks to address.

We must always be conscious of the things we say, how we behave and treat others. Our state of rule or order must not be maintained through the application of violence and repression.

Violence tends to bring violence into the homes and minds of individuals. The tendency is for members of society to inscribe these violent codes into their mind to use them as a script when interacting with their world, and most of the time their reaction will be done recklessly with no rationality and empathy.

The culprits will respond this way because they do not know or have alternatives but are forced to respond in the best way they know –“their natural way”, the violent way.

You cannot expect people to give you something that they do not possess. People will only be able to give you what they have, otherwise if you persist under such conditions, you will be asking them for the impossible. All that we must do is to help them think, contemplate, and process their actions.

We must support them by creating options for them and making them reflect on the impact of their actions.

In these instances, the problem is created by the inability to translate thoughts into words. It is about the difficulty that young people experience in expressing what they think.

The greatest battle with the uncoached youth is the struggle to express their thoughts, difficulties in handling their emotions, and their reaction to intervening events. Young people must be assisted to get to know how to respond to the dehumanising experiences that came their way.

Before we can condemn and make value judgements, we need to understand that many of these young people come from broken and incomplete families where there are no structures or parental figures to guide them.

They come from an environment with absent mothers and fathers, or family set-ups where the only language known to them is violence, where there is little or no comprehension of love. Most of them grew up living in a state of pity and fear that influenced their worldview or made them perceive their space as unsafe, unfair, uncaring, and punitive. Our young people today are confronted with a tonnage of challenges and as parents we are not helping them.

We expect a miracle to see them growing up into responsible individuals with no understanding of the world they are living in. A society is a mirror of families – what you see in our society is what you see in our families. We cannot expect our society to behave in a reputable way, when our families are struggling and are unable to deal with the small challenges that come their way. There is no way we can solve societal problems when our families need some fixing. If problems cannot be solved at home, then there is no way that they can be solved at school or by society.

It is not strange to find that the lawlessness that we speak about is only located or diagnosed as a paralysis of black communities. The reason you see violent episodes and flourishing of disruptive behaviours in our black schools and communities is by design, not an accident.

It is because of negligence, inconsiderate spatial planning, or a lack of political will to intervene and address the triple challenges faced by our country, particularly by black communities. Research reveals that one of the causes of social problems is poverty, unemployment, and inequality. That is why we mainly see the reporting of these problems in black schools or communities.

If you find them in other schools, it will be because of a citation of the genesis of racism. In those schools, people will fight because of the mistreatment of one race by another but will have nothing that relates to the poor story of the townships.

All that is recorded is the reporting of rife lawlessness in black communities. If we look at the metamorphosis of the problem, black youth is the main piece in the puzzle. In whatever way we look at it, they are central to the problem – it is the young black males who are caught up in this web of violence. It is the young black males who kill each other and it is they who fill to the brink the cells of our prisons.

And the question is, why is it so? The violence we see can be perceived as an attempt by young people to free themselves from the psychological bondage caused by dehumanisation and oppressive structures that condemn them. Or what Sartre described as a “young man recreating himself”. The creation of a new cultural identity by the youth that works in juxtaposition to their rejecting society. After years of living under a dehumanising rule which seeks to negate their identity, young people are “encouraged” to formulate a new identity to help them reclaim self-worth. This leads to the adoption of a new way of life they consider crucial for their survival and which in many instances violates the rights of others.

The violence we see in our communities is a cathartic experience that is a self-designed coping mechanism to help young people reclaim their self-worth. It could be perceived as a channel through which young people could release their frustration and anger, or could be seen as an effort to help them achieve their self-actualisation, which they have been denied for ages. It can be viewed as a response to bring meaning to their meaningless life.

Sometimes the violence we beget in these communities is a coping strategy to address and rectify the unresolved issues and mental challenges young people face.

It can sometimes be translated as a search for a love that young people do not know, which could not be found anywhere but through their association with violence and destructive formations. They deploy violence to communities with the understanding that a dehumanised individual is entitled to get back what he has lost and will not respond to a call for a ceasefire until he gets what he wants (self-entitlement).

This kind of violence becomes problematic because it becomes an end in itself with no rehabilitation course.

In the mind of young people who are in such a state, their action is seen as a cleansing or purging of what is not welcomed in their immediate space, or an intervening event to remove a feeling of self-loathing which has been internalised after their continual bombardment with negative messages from significant others and figures of authority.

Violence to them becomes a way of restoring their self-esteem, and the usurping of power and control which was stolen from them in their previous interactions with others. Hence you find the expression of uncomprehended jubilation following performance of violent actions.

This cathartic experience allows them to “reclaim their humanity”, which is a false claim – something that confuses those who bear the brunt of their violence.

The terror in the eyes of others no longer shrivels or freezes them. The plea for mercy to them confirms the regaining of power. They become more aggressive as they are reprimanded, because they perceive their behaviour as an action that is conducted to free themselves (from their inaction and despair), and a motivation for a restoration of their self-respect and a ticket to resume a free and self-determining existence.

The next time we meet, we will look at how we can intervene and assist in changing their mindset.

Dr Plaatjie is community worker and psychologist

Cape Times

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